World

Gettysburg, 150 years later: More than just a battle

By J Brooks Spector 4 July 2013

It’s been 150 years since the Battle of Gettysburg. The actual battle fought in and around the small town is now seen as both the high water mark of the South’s fortunes in the American Civil War as well as the point at which its efforts fatally overreached. The South’s defeat at Gettysburg led, inexorably, to the collapse of the Southern cause – independence for the South in the defence of an economy based on chattel slavery. By J BROOKS SPECTOR.

The film Remember the Titans is one of those inspirational sports films where the good guys come out on top after a struggle that redefines them as people. In that sense it is like Invictus, the film about South Africa’s improbable Rugby World Cup victory in 1995. Only instead of a professional rugby team that builds a new kind of national racial harmony out of an unexpected victory, Titans is about a high school in Northern Virginia in 1971 whose newly integrated football team has to find a way out of its racial divisions, as it is en route to becoming the state’s championship team. This high school team’s victorious season then becomes a microcosm of Alexandria, Virginia’s larger struggle with ending racial segregation, a community where many whites had stridently opposed the integration of their previously segregated local institutions.

In one of the early scenes of the film, the team is in its summer training camp at Gettysburg College in rural Pennsylvania – still in the throes of its own racial tensions – and it is led on a midnight training run through the countryside by its head coach until they stop on the actual battlefield at Gettysburg. The new head coach – a black man, just by the way – tells his still-feuding players they are still struggling with the residue of the great battle that had been fought on that very site they are standing on over the first three days of July 1863. Maybe the film is over-melodramatic, but that battlefield sermon somehow has the ring of larger truth to it.

The actual battle fought in and around the small town of Gettysburg a hundred and fifty years ago is now seen as both the high water mark of the South’s fortunes in the American Civil War as well as the point at which its efforts fatally overreached. The South’s defeat at Gettysburg led, inexorably, to the collapse of the Southern cause – independence for the South in the defence of an economy based on chattel slavery.

The South’s move into Pennsylvania was an effort to break the seeming military stalemate that had been in place since eleven Southern states had declared their independence when Abraham Lincoln won the 1860 election, as the first successful Republican Party candidate to do so. While Lincoln’s Republican Party platform did not specifically call for the abolition of slavery, many leaders in the party had embraced that precise objective and Southern slavery extremists decided the only way to preserve their “peculiar institution” was to establish a new governmental arrangement that would expressly guarantee that economic system.

The war began in earnest in 1861 when the two sides rallied volunteers to wage a fight that both sides largely thought would be over within a few months. While a number of brilliant tacticians and strategists led the South’s armies, they had seriously inferior resources in war materiel, rail transport and national financial capabilities. The result, for nearly two years, was effectively a military stalemate. The South couldn’t deliver a convincing military victory to guarantee its independence and foreign recognition, but the North could not generate a conclusive end to the rebellion either.

History Professor Allen Guelzo at Gettysburg College described the situation as a stalemate that apparently was tipping towards the Confederates. As Guelzo writes, “For over a year before, the Confederate general Robert E. Lee and his homespun Army of Northern Virginia had defied every expectation, and routinely humiliated every thrust its opposite number, the Army of the Potomac, had made at the Confederacy’s vitals in Virginia. Union generals – George McClellan, Ambrose Burnside, Joe Hooker – had been installed, and just as readily removed, until by 1863, a soldier in the 16th North Carolina could boast that they were merely waiting for the Yankees ‘to put up another General for us to whip.’ ”

Photo: Union commander George G Meade and Confederate commander Robert E Lee.

But in an effort to break this stalemate wide open and bring the war to a conclusive negotiated end, Southern strategists determined they would invade Pennsylvania. This done, they would gain access to large amounts of precious military stores (including shoes for an increasingly barefoot army), rations, and – most importantly – it would allow General Robert E Lee’s unbeaten Army of Virginia to threaten Philadelphia, the state capital of Harrisburg, Baltimore and even the national capital of Washington with an army positioned flexibly in Pennsylvania’s rolling countryside.

To put this plan into effect, Lee’s army began to move on the small college town and distribution centre of Gettysburg because it was situated athwart good roads headed in every direction. The Union army, ironically, was marching northwards but to the south of Lee’s army, in a shielding position designed to protect Baltimore and Washington from any sudden Confederate feint southward. Meanwhile, only days before what would become this battle, President Lincoln had relieved the Army of the Potomac’s then commander, Joseph Hooker, for his incompetence (and, yes, that’s where the sobriquet comes from), replacing Hooker with General George Meade who had to hurry northward to catch up with his new command.

As the battle began, Confederate units began to move into the town and towards two parallel ridgelines located to the south that would be excellent defensive positions in the event of the arrival of the Union army. But advance guards from the Union army slowed the Confederates’ advance and by the second day, the Union army was in place along the second, higher ridge and several smaller hills to the south and on the north. These positions formed a line that looked something like a bent fishhook. General Lee attempted to break the Union forces by penetrating first the northern point of their forces and then along the southern end of their lines, but without success.

But, as a result, Lee, now convinced the Union generals had weakened the centre of their line to reinforce the two ends of it, Lee ordered a charge in force across open fields from own positions and then on to the centre of the Union lines. Gen. George Pickett’s division was selected to head for the precise centre of the main Northern line. Demonstrating the withering effect of massed gunfire from new, breech loading carbines and artillery on waves of soldiers advancing across open fields without any cover, the South’s forces were decisively defeated on that climactic charge on the hot, sunny afternoon of 3 July. This failure then forced Lee to break off the entire engagement, to cede the field to his opponent, and then to seek refuge back across the Potomac River miles to the south in a driving rain.

Photo: “The Harvest of Death”: Union dead on the battlefield at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, photographed July 5 or July 6, 1863, by Timothy H. O’Sullivan.

Guelzo notes that by contrast to that earlier confidence that the South could ultimately prevail, “When instead it was the Confederates who were defeated at Gettysburg, the surprise was almost unbearable. ‘The campaign is a failure,’ wrote one rebel officer to his sister on July 17, ‘and the worst failure that the South has ever made … and no blow since the fall of New Orleans has been so telling against us.’ ”

The defeat of the Southern forces also coincided with the capture of Vicksburg on the Mississippi River by another Union army led by Ulysses S Grant, effectively splitting the Confederate states into two no-longer-connected halves along the course of that broad river. But it still took until April 1865 before General Grant – now overall Union commander in the decisive eastern theatre – could wear down and defeat Lee’s forces in what is now seen as the first war won by concentrated industrial might, rather than simply superior military tactics or strategic thinking. Grant had made effective use of the North’s advantage in the means of war, superb use of rail transport for fast troop movements along hundreds of kilometres of fighting as well as the telegraph network to exercise broad but precise control over those armies operating in the wide American landscape. And Grant also recognised industrial-style warfare required harnessing his material advantages with his natural advantage in manpower (including nearly 200,000 black volunteers) to wear down, then box in an increasingly worn out Southern army.

Even beyond the scope and horror of this gigantic battlefield, Gettysburg captured the imagination of generations as the last time romantic notions of warfare – as in Pickett’s charge led by carefully dressed officers and straight lines of troops fully visible to their precisely situated and well protected opponents – would prevail against common sense. For generations, as novelist William Faulkner described it in his novel Intruder in the Dust, in referring to the moments before Pickett’s charge, “For every Southern boy fourteen years old, there is the instant when it’s still not yet two o’clock on that July afternoon.” And “The Cause” might still be reimagined, if not actually won outright – at least for white Southern boys, anyway. For blacks, obviously, it was rather different.

Even now, however, military historians argue over what, precisely, was achieved in the slaughter. Overall, there were more than fifty thousand casualties – with 23,049 Union dead and wounded and some 28,063 Confederate dead and injured – out of 82, 289 Union and some 75,000 Confederate soldiers engaged in the three-day battle. A reasonable description might be a tactical victory for the Union but a clear strategic defeat for the Confederates. President Lincoln first rejoiced in the victory on the field of battle – but then despaired when he later learned that General Meade had failed to order pursuit of the defeated Southern Army as they then retreated in good order across the flooding Potomac River and on to relative safety in Virginia. The inhabitants of Gettysburg and the surrounding countryside, meanwhile, were left to cope with the extraordinary number of human and animal corpses decaying in the hot summer sun and the thousands of still other men moaning for urgent medical attention that, too often, did not come in time.

Despite the horrific carnage, following the Battle of Gettysburg, the South was never again able to go on the offensive and was, rather, forced into an increasingly desperate defensive posture, despite an occasional victory over local Union forces. Moreover, following the battle, any hope of French or British support – let alone actual intervention – evaporated as well.

Imagine for a moment what might have happened instead if the South had prevailed. Philadelphia, Baltimore, let alone Washington, could well have been occupied, and a negotiated settlement leading to Southern independence could easily have been the result of such defeats. Slavery would likely have continued for decades more (it was, after all, only abolished in Brazil in 1889) and the South might even have embarked on an aggressive campaign to conquer Cuba from Spain (a frequent obsession with American politicians before the war and after) or even attempt to share in the rule of a supine Mexico as Napoleon III’s French army was occupying it for a compliant Austrian archduke.

But what happened instead was that the North eventually prevailed, a nation was held together, only just, and slavery was abolished, even though the full protection of civic rights for black Americans would be a century more in grudgingly coming to pass. Historical novelist Robert Hicks has written of the result, “the Civil War sealed us as a nation. The novelist and historian Shelby Foote said that before the war our representatives abroad referred to us as ‘these’ United States, but after we became ‘the’ United States. Somehow, as divided as we were, even as the war ended, we have become more than New Yorkers and Tennesseans, Texans and Californians.”

Watch PBS’s Third day of Gettysburg



Moreover, the northern victory meant that an increasingly modern capitalism would expand, even as generations of immigrants would be inspired to throw in their lot with the United States as a place with greater freedom – religious, ethnic, political – was all possible than in the places they had fled. It is nearly impossible to imagine such a result, by contrast, if the South had won its war to protect the enslavement of millions of humans.

And, of course, the commemoration of the cemetery to accommodate all those battle deaths on 19 November 1863, gave President Lincoln the opportunity to craft in a short statement of fewer than three hundred words a defining argument for democratic government – with its eloquent concluding phrase – “that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

Photo: A crowd gathered for Lincoln’s address at the dedication ceremony for the Gettysburg National Cemetery, Nov. 19, 1863. Painting by Fletcher C Ransom

Lincoln, of course, was not the keynote speaker for the cemetery’s dedication ceremony; rather, that honour was given to veteran politician and rhetorician Edward Everett instead. Everett was considered the nation’s finest – and probably its most long-winded – orator, but his 13,000-plus-word address is virtually forgotten now. By contrast, Lincoln’s speech is frequently compared with Pericles’ 2,500-year old “Oration Over the Athenian Dead”. And it is virtually certain it will be remembered long after anyone pays attention to the actual battle that led to its creation. Lincoln used his couple of minutes at the speaker’s dais to redefine the war as a battle for democratic values and thereby turn it into a sacred cause to be pursued on behalf of all Americans – and beyond. His words, in full were:

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate, we can not consecrate, we can not hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth. DM

Read more:

  • Why the Civil War Still Matters at the New York Times;
  • The Legacy of Gettysburg at ABC News;
  • At Gettysburg, Death And Transformation at Time;
  • Gettysburg at CivilWar.org;
  • 150 years later, emotions still raw at scene of Gettysburg battle at CBS News;
  • Opinionator – What Gettysburg Proved, at the New York Times;
  • Books about Gettysburg that are outstanding from Amazon.com.

Photo: Visitors attend the Memorial Luminaria at the Soldiers’ National Cemetery during events marking the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania June 30, 2013. TREUTERS/Mark Makela

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